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Less than a month into 2017, I was thrust into a journey of self-reinvention when my marriage to my husband and business partner ended. Setting out on my new path, nicknamed “Operation Butterfly” by a friend, I felt like a chrysalis breaking free of its cocoon, suddenly in the process of a complete transformation. Back then, I imagined the change that followed would feel like Rebecca Solnit describes in her book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, when she says, “The process of transformation consists mostly of decay and then of this crisis when emergence from what came before must be total and abrupt.” However, it was only the beginning of a gradual evolution.
While the inciting incident for my transformation—a divorce—was sudden, the process of reinvention was more akin to Solnit’s description from another book, The Faraway Nearby, in which she notes, “Even earthquakes are the consequence of tensions built up over long spans of time, imperceptibly, incrementally. You don’t notice the buildup, just the release… In movies and novels, people change suddenly and permanently, which is convenient and dramatic but not much like life, where you gain distance on something, relapse, resolve, try again, and move along in stops, starts, and stutters. Change is mostly slow.”
Rebecca was right on both occasions. For me, change was abrupt at first and then slow and tenuous. Encompassing both the personal and professional arenas of my life, it was an opportunity to reinvent myself entirely by leaving The Great Discontent, the magazine I co-founded with my ex-husband, and eventually merging my social-worker roots with the years I spent interviewing hundreds of creatives by training to become a creative coach.
My story is only one of many who have or will reinvent themselves at least once, if not multiple times, over the course of their lives. You might be there now. If so, this guide is for you. In it, I’ll address how we know when it’s time for a change, steps to assessing what to change, moving forward with actionable goals, and building a foundation that will be sustainable for the long-term. Ultimately, self-reinvention isn’t about becoming someone else—it’s about realigning your life with what you want. It’s about becoming who you know you can be.
— Tina Essmaker, Creative Coach
Change. Transform. Make different. Modify. Adjust. Shift. Evolve. What does the word reinvent actually mean? Before we dive into the details of the process, it’s important to define the word and establish our expectations. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines reinvention as follows:
There are two items of note in the definitions above. First, reinvention entails producing something new based on what already exists. It is not a total repudiation of what came before. In a recent phone conversation with my mentor I was reminded that even as I embark on new professional endeavors that will redefine my creative role, I am still me. You are still you wherever you go. Reinvention honors your past and all of the lessons, experiences, training, and expertise you bring with you while simultaneously looking forward to future possibilities.
Second, reinvention goes beyond changing your job or the way you look. There is a difference between seeming different and becoming different. Making changes that focus merely on surface-level aspects of your life (i.e. “if I change my job, I won’t be burned out anymore”) often won’t result in meaningful long-term reinvention. Instead, the newness can energize us for a while, but since we’ll be working with the same internal parts and overall approach, eventually we’ll find ourselves feeling the need to make yet another change. True self-reinvention happens from the inside out as you realign your life with your values, dreams, and priorities.
“Something needs to change, but I’m not sure what.” “I don’t feel like I’m growing anymore.” “This isn’t the life I imagined for myself.” “I just feel stuck.”
Sound familiar? It’s common to experience feelings of boredom, feel stuck, wonder if we’ve stopped growing, and question our path every now and then as life ebbs and flows. Sometimes those feelings are a normal part of the process and pass quickly, but other times they indicate that we are in need of a bigger change. When uncomfortable feelings and questions of doubt continue to bubble up to the surface, or intensify, it can be a sign that it’s time to re-evaluate our lives and the direction we’re headed in.
Here are a few signs it might be time to consider reinventing yourself:
1. Your growth has plateaued. Growth happens in seasons and is more intense during certain phases of our lives, like our college years or when we start a new job or undergo a big life-changing experience. However, if you’ve stopped growing as a person and a professional and feel bored, unchallenged, and disinterested, you might need a change. We’ll talk about identifying what to change in the next section, so keep reading.
2. Your life is no longer aligned with your values and goals. At some point you stopped living the life you wanted and began to live the life you thought you were supposed to live. You became the perfect employee, partner, parent, child, friend, etc. But this has left you feeling disconnected with your life in the day to day. If your life is out of alignment with what you value and what you want to accomplish, it’s time to choose a new course—one that is fully yours.
3. Your current life isn’t sustainable and is leading to exhaustion and burnout. Living a life that leads to exhaustion and burnout will require reinvention at some point—either you choose to proactively reinvent yourself, or you will be forced to do so when you officially burn out and every area of your life is affected, from career to physical health to relationships. If you’re on this path, it’s time to reinvent as prevention.
4. Life circumstances provide an opportunity for change. Sometimes we choose to hit pause and re-evaluate our lives, and other times we are asked to stop and recalibrate due a change in circumstances. That’s what happened when I got divorced, however, instead of trying to recreate my old life, which was impossible, I took it as an opportunity to reinvent myself. If life is giving you an opportunity to build off of the momentum of change to reinvent yourself, accept it.
5. You are running toward rather than away from something. The purpose of reinvention is not to run away from something—your job, family, partner, city, or life. Reinvention is an opportunity to run toward something that has been calling you. If you have a clear idea of what you want to do next, or are feeling drawn to a particular curiosity or direction, it might be time to go for it.
6. Your intuition tells you so. Sometimes we just know it’s time for a change. Of course it’s not wise to uproot our entire lives based on a fleeting feeling, but don’t underestimate the power of your gut or intuition to hint that it’s time to reinvent. If you have a nagging gut feeling, there’s probably something there worthy of further exploration.
7. You’ve given it time and still feel the same way. If you’re unsure, give yourself time. Set a date on the calendar that allows you a reasonable period of time to mull it over, weigh the pros and cons, and carefully consider how reinvention could affect all the parts of your life. If time passes and you still have the desire to reinvent, combined with any of the indicators above, it’s likely that you’re ready.
This list isn’t exhaustive or final. There may be other indications that it’s time to reinvent. Thus it’s important to spend time with yourself, reflect on a regular basis, lean into your own understanding, and practice trusting your intuition as your voice becomes more clear.
Once we make the commitment to self-reinvention, we may want to dive in headfirst or, surprisingly, we might find ourselves resisting the very change we desire. As human beings, we are averse to risk and change feels risky. So know that it’s a normal part of the process to find yourself avoiding or even sabotaging the change you set out to make. This doesn’t mean you should give up, however.
If you encounter a mental block around what to change, it can be helpful to understand that most decisions we make are not final and that if we choose to make a change and it doesn’t lead to the outcome we want, we can choose a different course of action. For more on this, I’d highly recommend listening to Hurry Slowly podcast host Jocelyn K. Glei interview philosopher and sociologist, Renata Salecl, in this episode about how to let go of the idea that we have to make the perfect choice or no choice at all.
When we feel paralyzed and are unsure about taking the first step, it can help to start small. Each action you take will give you more information and help you move on to bigger decisions about your life. There’s no “right” way to reinvent yourself, but here are a few pointers to help you start where you are, thoughtfully reflect on your current circumstances, and make a plan to move forward.
Build a foundation for change by identifying your North Stars.
When was the last time you paused to think about what fulfills you? We’re easily able to list what doesn’t satisfy us, but how do we know what to move toward? What do you want more of in your life? Defining your North Stars can be a helpful way to lay the foundation for future decision-making to ensure that what you’re choosing aligns with what you want more of.
Know your why by writing a mission statement.
Many of us have worked for companies that have mission statements, but how many of us have personal mission statements or even know how to write one? This is crucial to uncovering why you are making life-changing decisions. You can have one mission statement for your entire life, or you can form different statements for various areas of your life if you want to separate them out.
Assess each area of your life to identify what you want to change.
Now that you’ve laid a foundation by identifying your North Stars and forming a personal mission statement, it’s time to explore what to change. We often view transformations as “black and white” or “before and after.” However, even small changes in our daily lives can have a big ripple effect. Assess your life holistically by looking at every area and identifying what you might want to change.
Start small and build momentum for further change.
You’ve laid a foundation and are ready to take action, so now it’s time for change. Start small by enacting one of the changes on your list—perhaps the one you feel the least resistance to. Then, you’ll be able to build momentum from there. Early wins can help build your confidence in your ability to make bigger changes. Here are a few tips:
As you begin the transformative journey of creating change in your life, it’s vital to set yourself up for success. Here are a few methods to help you continue on when you are tempted to lose sight of your goals, give in to discouragement, or abandon ship altogether:
Remember your why and let your North Stars guide you. At some point, or several points, you will feel discouraged, question your new path, and wonder if you made the right choice. When this happens, revisit your North Stars and imagine how your life will feel once you have more of what you want. Reread your mission statement and remember why you are on a new path. Go back to both as often as you need.
Build change into your daily routine. What changes can you make in your day-to-day to have a calendar that reflects your priorities? What does your roadmap to change look like on a calendar? Think about it in terms of the day-to-day changes, monthly goals, and quarterly goals that will help you get closer to the life you want.
Enlist help. You can’t do it alone. Enlist the help of key people who you trust and can lean on for encouragement, accountability, and feedback. Professional support can come in the form of therapists, formal mentors, and coaches. Personally, you could reach out to friends to schedule regular check-ins for accountability, or join (or start) a mastermind group. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, masterminds are peer-to-peer mentoring groups where members help each other solve problems and share resources.
Celebrate progress. Before our regular calls, I always ask my coaching clients to answer a few questions: What have been your wins or achievements since we last spoke? What insights have you had? What opportunities have arisen? These questions help my clients focus on the progress they’ve made, and builds their confidence. Create regular check-ins on the calendar to recognize your progress and use that momentum to move forward.
Who you want to be is not out of reach. You could begin today. You can commit to change, start where you are, make a plan to move forward, and take action to reinvent yourself. If you’re ready to reinvent, don’t wait. As Mary Oliver writes in her poem Moments, “There is nothing more pathetic than caution / when headlong might save a life, / even, possibly, your own.”
I did not seek out the journey of self-reinvention, but it found me anyway. Even as I left my marriage and the magazine I co-founded and set my sights on building my coaching business, my work has continued to transform, sometimes unexpectedly. The process has felt both sudden and slow, abrupt and drawn-out, but I have learned to embrace the dualities of reinvention. And, ultimately, I have realized that the person I am becoming is not someone foreign or completely new, but someone I recognize because she is who I wanted to become all along.
Whether you initiate change or respond to a life-changing circumstance that is out of your control, the choice to reinvent is solely yours. First, you must own your current circumstances, whether you are content and fulfilled or restless and disillusioned. Once you have taken responsibility for where and who you are, you can take responsibility for your future and who you want to be. Own your ambitions, but be open to how the future unfolds. View reinvention as part of the cyclical nature of our lives—you will do it now, and again, and again.
Tina Essmaker is a NYC-based coach, writer, and speaker who equips the creative community to move beyond inspiration into action. She is cofounder and former Editor in Chief of The Great Discontent magazine, for which she interviewed more than 250 creators. Her decade-long background in social work combined with her expertise in themes that dot the creative landscape are the foundation of her coaching practice working with individuals and teams across creative industries.
Editor’s note: This guide is part of a series with NEW INC, highlighting the expertise and insights of their community’s members and mentors.